May 30, 2020

When did political leaders first start showing their teeth in official photographs?

This is a question that occurred to me as I was looking at Wikipedia's list of Vice Presidents of the United States to try to answer a question I had about former Vice Presidents who run for the presidency.

Most of these VPs are not smiling at all, and it seems that only a hint of a smile seemed consistent with the exercise of political power. They look grumpy to us today, but presumably the idea was to look completely serious. We expect smiles now. The emergence of teeth comes in 1953 with Richard Nixon, a person whose smile made many people uneasy and suspicious, oddly enough.

Here's the list of U.S. Presidents, with their official pictures. The first one to smile showing teeth is JFK. Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1974, all the Presidents are smiling showing teeth, except one — Barack Obama.

The baring of teeth is a serious matter. How and when did it become part of a nice, warm smile? "How Did the 'Smile' Become a Friendly Gesture in Humans?" (Scientific American):
Anthony Stocks, chairman and professor of anthropology at Idaho State University, responds: "The evolution of smiles is opaque and, as with many evolutionary accounts of social behavior, fraught with just-soism. Among human babies, however, the 'tooth-baring' smile is associated less with friendship than with fright--which, one might argue, is related to the tooth-baring threats of baboons. On the other hand, a non-toothy, not-so-broad-but-open-lipped smile is associated with pleasure in human infants. Somehow we seem to have taken the fright-threat sort of smile and extended it to strangers as a presumably friendly smile. Maybe it is not as innocent as it seems. All cultures recognize a variety of mouth gestures as indexes of inner emotional states. As in our own culture, however, smiles come in many varieties, not all of them interpreted as friendly."
Here's "When did humans start to smile?" by Professor Antony Manstead (British Academy):
The fact that humans can control most of their facial expressions, including smiling, adds considerable complexity to the relationship between smiling and emotion.... Portraits of men and women typically depict them with a serious, unsmiling expression. The ‘smile’ of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is an exception, although the fame of the painting arises partly from the ambiguity of the expression. In any case, her smile is not one that shows her teeth. Colin Jones FBA’s study of smiling in French 18th-century paintings charts how the depiction of a smile showing teeth emerged between 1700 and the 1780s. He argues that the absence of such smiles in earlier portraiture stemmed partly from the tooth rot caused by sugar and poor diet, and partly from the aristocratic perception that smiling and laughter were manifestations of a lack of self-control and an absence of good manners....

In a recent study of nearly 38,000 yearbook photographs taken between 1905 and 2013, Shiry Ginosar and colleagues showed that the breadth of smiles increased steadily until the 1950s, when it became the norm to smile for such photographs. As with the changes in portrait painting, these changes can be explained in terms of material factors and social conventions. The material explanation relates to the lengthy exposure times that were needed in early photography, necessitating the maintenance of a pose for seconds....

The social conventional explanation is one proposed by the historian Christina Kotchemidova, who has argued that Kodak, the major player in the rapidly expanding photographic market, sought through their advertising to associate photography with happy occasions like holidays and travel, making the smile the obvious expression to be shown in a snapshot.

The relatively recent phenomenon of smiling in portraits can be attributed at least in part to cultural norms, but these vary from country to country. Studies have shown that the same person is likely to be judged by others as less intelligent when smiling than when not smiling in certain cultures.... Jeffrey Girard and Daniel McDuff analysed the facial responses of more than 850,000 people from 31 countries as they viewed television advertisements. They found that people smiled more when they were from countries that are high in individualism and low in population density. However, the strongest predictor of smiling was ‘historical heterogeneity’: an index of a country’s record of immigration diversity over time.... In countries with a long tradition of diverse immigration (such as Brazil and the United States), people shared neither a language nor social norms but nevertheless had to get along with each other. The absence of shared norms and language made it more difficult to anticipate how others would act or react, but this lack of predictability could be reduced by making one’s feelings and intentions explicit through one’s nonverbal displays....
That's the cue here at Meadhouse to start singing "Wooden Ships"...

Anyway... in the current election season, you've got a big difference in smiling between the 2 major party candidates. Joe Biden has a big toothy smile and Donald Trump keeps an old-time-y grumpy face much of the time. It's the Winston Churchill-type face. Trump speaks humorously more than he actually smiles, and his smiles are often just crooked, sly expressions, reactions to particular things that he's finding funny. His standard presentation is quite stern:



Some people experience that as threatening. For others, it works. But why? We may still have the feelings that led politicians before the Kennedy Era to present us with a sternly serious face.

25 comments:

LordSomber said...

Aside from the advent of quality dental work until the last century, old school photography involved sitting for longer periods of time and forced smiles were harder to hold.

PJ said...

I have supposed (without study or evidence) that a toothy smile originated as a display of good health.

Fernandinande said...

It's funny when one's fear grimace is mistaken for a friendly smile.

Temujin said...

Here? Teddy

Big Mike said...

The first one to smile showing teeth is JFK.

Could have been Taft — who could tell under that bushy mustache?

RK said...

It likely correlates with advances in dental care.

khematite said...

No study of presidential teeth is complete without some reference to Teddy Roosevelt's, which were at first vice presidential and then unexpectedly presidential. This is from a somewhat kooky website, but has a photo (though hot an official one) and some interesting nuggets.

https://www.andywhiteanthropology.com/blog/news-flash-teddy-roosevelt-was-a-nephilim-giant-with-a-double-row-of-teeth

mikee said...

I'd like to hear more of the "just-so" explanations, as Kipling is still a favorite author, and even derivatives of his work can be amusing.

Wince said...

"When did political leaders first start showing their teeth in official photographs?"

The advent of cosmetic dentistry?

You could say the same about movie/TV actors.

Politics is just show business for ugly people.

rcocean said...

Remember, one can smile, and smile, and still be a villain.

Hitler and Stalin were party animals, but never smiled for the camera, unless they'd just conquered another country.

loudogblog said...

Painted portraits were probably very expensive. So that might make people take the matter more seriously. Also, early photography was cheaper, but still cost some money. As photography got cheaper and cheaper and people got used to taking photographs during un-serious occasions, like parties, people probably got comfortable with smiling more when their image was captured. Based on reading the comments, it looks like there were multiple reasons that made people smile more when their portraits were taken.

Ironclad said...

The other unspoken reason for not showing teeth was the simple fact that dental hygiene ( especially after sugar became the norm in Europe) was abysmal. Who wanted to bare black teeth or swollen gums?

Realistic portrait painting is recent and sculpture is always the idolized version.

Sugar and the barber being the dentist too.

wild chicken said...

There is an emoji of a huge green toothy grin that I hate used on some forums.

It really does seem aggressive rather than friendly. Though the users probably mean "hey, I kid, I KID hahaha."

Lurker21 said...

A famous photo of Theodore Roosevelt shows him smiling and showing teeth - laughing, apparently - but it's not an official portrait. You can also find smiling photos of Wilson, bad teeth and all, and FDR - also not official portraits - as well as a rare smiling photo of Taft (looking to me a little like the tiny Monopoly man, a strange fate for a real-life trust-buster).

My guess is that candid photos of presidents, including smiling ones, came in with TR. You had easy-to-use cameras and a more powerful national press as well as a president who couldn't resist the limelight and a nation hungry for novelty. Smiling didn't always mean showing teeth, though. It was hard enough to get Coolidge and Hoover to smile (when Coolidge smiled he looked a lot like his contemporary Stan Laurel), let alone show their teeth.

I'm guessing smiling started to appear in official portraits when television (and dentistry) came of age. Ike smiled a lot.

h said...

I'm surprised this didn't get a "garner" tag: John Garner [52]

Robt C said...

When I taught American History at a university, one of my lectures included a video of the presidential portraits morphing from Washington to Obama. Invariably, the class would break out laughing when Carter showed up. Must have been that toothy smile.

(The video was actually pretty interesting, and must have been a lot of work.)

Nichevo said...

Here's "When did humans start to smile?" by Professor Antony Manstead (British Academy):


If you had started off by telling us it was a Brit who wrote this, we needn't have have read any further. We knew about the bad teeth and "the idiot always smiles."

Bob said...

I think LordSomber (aptly named for this post) largely has it nailed. Light-sensitive media were very "slow" in the early days of photography.

A toothy smile with a joyous look is a very spontaneous gesture. Of course, many celebrities learn to hold those smiles for long periods (lest they be accused of having "resting bitch faces"), but the smiles look forced pretty quickly. See Clinton, Hillary for an example.

A portrait subject couldn't possibly hold a joyful grin comfortably while waiting for the old-time media to expose in a formal portrait. Flash and faster media solved the problem much later.

When I was a kid, I marveled at the old black-and-white photos and the pictures of somber people, so gray and different from the colorful and often joyous world I knew. "Nobody smiled in the Old Days!" I complained. My father, forty-one years my senior and a photographer, was thoroughly amused.

Openidname said...

As long as we're all wearing masks, who cares?

dbzdak said...

"When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life" - Dwight Schrute.

https://twitter.com/dwightschrute_/status/838483290583625729

Bob said...

Speaking of toothy grins, I've watched interviews with Carly Simon -- she of the Mile-Wide Mouth -- from the the past. She clearly had bad teeth in her younger days. When Howard Stern interviewed her in 1995, she'd had them fixed.

Ann Althouse said...

The TR pics aren't the official portraits, but I believe he did want to be seen with that grimace.

Earnest Prole said...

Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1974, all the Presidents are smiling showing teeth, except one — Barack Obama.

I would say Jimmy Carter is showing teeth but not smiling.

Kai Akker said...

"as Kipling is still a favorite author" --mikee

So due for a big comeback in popularity!! Esp with China in the world's doghouse. Was looking up the books this morning. So due.

ken in tx said...

When some politicians smile, they look like they are trying to ignore something bad that they just stepped in.